At Earth Day Summit, Biden Commits United States to Ambitious Goal of Cutting Emissions by Half by 2030 as the European Union Agrees to Climate Neutrality by 2050

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Over April 22nd and 23rd, the Biden administration hosted 40 world leaders in a climate summit coinciding with Earth Day. The leaders announced a variety of pledges and ambitions relating to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and other climate matters. President Biden announced that the United States would cut emissions between 50 and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The day before the leaders' summit, the European Union (EU) announced a political agreement on the European Climate Law, which will enact legally-binding targets for the EU to become carbon neutral by 2050.


United States Pledges

The Biden administration's aggressive goal to cut emissions between 50 and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is nearly double the greenhouse gas emissions reduction target set by the Obama administration. The goal is a component of the United States' most recent Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the 2015 Paris Agreement that President Biden rejoined upon taking office. Nations that are Parties to the Paris Agreement are required to prepare, communicate, and maintain NDCs with a view to achieving the Paris Agreement's objective of limiting the increase in global average temperature. However, the substantive content of these NDCs is determined by individual nations, rather than imposed by the Paris Agreement. Therefore, the Biden administration's goal to cut emissions between 50 and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is not binding. 

The legal means by which the Biden administration plans to fulfill this goal is uncertain and litigation challenging the administration's efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions is likely. President Biden's proposed infrastructure plan could play a role by funding the building of electric vehicle chargers and research and development to promote low greenhouse gas emissions technologies, among other actions. However, it remains to be seen whether that plan will have congressional support. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to implement new standards for greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles through rulemaking, which would likely not require congressional support. The federal EPA is also likely to attempt to use its existing CAA authority to bypass Congress and issue more stringent limits on emissions of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, through strengthening standards for venting, flaring, and leaking of methane during the production and transportation of oil and gas. 

While the extent of EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants is less clear, the Biden administration and EPA are likely to try to use existing authority under the CAA to further restrict these emissions in the most legally-defensible ways. However, litigation is likely to follow any such attempt at using existing CAA authority in this manner. The Obama administration attempted to use existing CAA authority and rulemaking in 2015 to issue the Clean Power Plan, which assigned each state an individual goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, opponents of this effort challenged the rulemaking in court. The Trump administration attempted to repeal the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan in 2017 and later issued a replacement rule. This rule was also challenged in court and ultimately invalidated by a federal court as a "fundamental misconstruction" of environmental laws. Furthermore, even though new EPA rulemaking may not require congressional approval, the anticipated litigation challenging any such rules may be more likely to succeed under a somewhat more conservative federal judiciary and Supreme Court.

At the summit, the Biden administration also announced an international climate finance plan under which it intends to increase funding to developing countries to address climate change, pledging $5.7 million annually by 2024. As part of the finance plan, the Biden administration said that federal agencies will seek to end international investments in greenhouse gas-intensive fossil fuel-based energy projects. Under the plan, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation pledged to reach net-zero emissions in its investments by 2040 and to increase climate-focused investment to 33% of its new allocations starting in 2023. However, some environmental activists condemn the plan because it does not cover the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the largest source of U.S. government financing for fossil fuel projects abroad.


EU Pledges

The day before the summit, the EU Member States in the Council and the European Parliament reached a provisional political agreement on the European Climate Law. When adopted, the Climate Law will make ambitious new targets legally-binding. The targets are (i) to achieve climate neutrality for the EU by 2050 and (ii) a greenhouse gas emissions reduction of at least 55 percent as compared to 1990 levels by 2030. This goes beyond the previous EU target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent as compared to 1990 levels by 2030.

The provisional agreement is now subject to approval by the Council and the European Parliament, which is largely a rubber-stamping exercise given that the Member States and the European Parliament have already reached an agreement. President Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, stated that "[o]ur political commitment to becoming the first climate neutral continent by 2050 is now also a legal one…the Climate Law sets the EU on a green path for a generation."

The provisional agreement envisages:

  • Giving priority to emissions reductions over removals by capping the amount of carbon removals from natural ‘carbon sinks' such as forests that can count towards the net 55 percent reduction target;
  • Establishing a "European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change", which will be responsible for providing scientific advice and reporting on EU measures, targets, and budgets;
  • An intermediate climate target for 2040, which is to be proposed by the European Commission, if appropriate, following the first global stocktake carried out under the Paris Agreement; and 
  • A non legally-binding call for governments in the EU to ‘strive' towards reaching zero emissions by 2050. This is the result of a compromise since no agreement could be reached on a net-zero obligation for each EU Member State.

The real test will come in June 2021 when the European Commission is due to announce a package of climate laws that seek to bring the targets to fruition. This package will reportedly involve revising or introducing 50 pieces of climate-related legislation. The co-rapporteur in the European Parliament, Pascal Canfin, stated that: "[w]hen you change 50 laws at the same time, it's a systemic change, and that's exactly the story of the green deal".

The United Kingdom (UK), which recently left the EU, announced its own plans on April 20th to cut emissions by 78 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2035. Legislation has been laid before the UK Parliament with the aim of enshrining the new target in law by the end of June this year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated: "[w]e want to continue to raise the bar on tackling climate change, and that's why we're setting the most ambitious target to cut emissions in the world." For the first time, the carbon budget in the UK will be extended to include international aviation and shipping. The Labour party (in opposition to Johnson's government) has said that the government needs to match "rhetoric with reality". It remains to be seen what precise measures the UK will enact to meet the 78 percent reduction target.


Other Climate Summit Pledges

The 40 world leaders at President Biden's climate summit represented countries that account for over 80 percent of the global economy and included President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Australia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Russia did not make any new commitments. However, President Putin stated that Russia is "genuinely interested in galvanizing international cooperation" to address climate change and that Russia may propose preferential terms and conditions for foreign investment in clean energy projects. President Bolsonaro announced that Brazil will reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and pledged to double funding for environmental enforcement efforts, including as a plan to reduce reforestation. However, Brazil's environmental minister added that for Brazil to enforce its plan to reduce reforestation and carbon emissions it would need $1 billion per year in foreign aid. Canada announced its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Japan announced its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 46 to 50 percent below 2013 levels by 2030. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in announced that South Korea would ban all new financing for overseas coal projects. Under Moon, South Korea has ceased issuing permits for new domestic coal-fired power plants. Coinciding with the summit, a new international group called the "New Zero Producers Forum" was formed with the United States, Canada, Norway, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia as members with the pursuit of developing strategies to reach global net zero emissions with the cooperation of the oil and gas-producing member countries. The United States will also join Denmark to co-lead efforts to reduce carbon emissions from international shipping.

Participants from the military and intelligence sector also announced climate change mitigation and adaptation plans at the summit. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence stated at the summit that climate must be at the center of a country's national security and foreign policy. NATO officials announced that they plan to agree on a climate action plan to reduce emissions by military units and conduct an alliance-wide assessment of political threats relating to climate issues. NATO member country militaries, including the U.S. Department of Defense, are some of the most significant consumers of fossil fuels in the world. Numerous companies have also recently announced net-zero greenhouse gas emissions or other climate goals. For example, coinciding with the summit, United States Steel Corporation announced its goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.


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